Friday, August 27, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Abigail Adams

This week (August 26th) we celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the passing of the nineteenth amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Hard to believe, isn't it--that for most of the country's history women were denied the right to vote? That women should vote along with men seems so simple and self-evident now, but less than a century ago, it was the stuff of rallies, protests, and bitter debates in kitchens and bedrooms. Many men failed to understand that women were simply demanding that most basic of rights--the right to have one's voice heard.

Abigail Adams understood this. On March 31, 1776, she wrote to her husband John, then attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. "And by the way," she wrote, "in the new code of laws...I desire you would remember the ladies." She implored him to allow women a voice in the new government. John's response was rather predictable for the time: "I cannot but laugh." Over a century later, "Remember the ladies!" became a familiar cry at Votes for Women rallies.

Abigail's thoughtful letters are now part of history; they are her legacy. As a writer she understood the glorious freedom of self-expression. As a writer, I can't imagine anything more suffocating than having one's voice suppressed. I hope I never take that hard-won right for granted.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Gene Roddenberry

This week (August 19) we celebrate the 89th anniversary of the birth of STAR TREK creator and visionary Gene Roddenberry.

“To boldly go…” OK, split infinitive aside (oh, yeah, I’m THAT kind of person), discovering new worlds is the whole reason I became a nonfiction writer. Through the books I’ve researched, I’ve had the privilege of listening to John Adams as he argued for the Declaration of Independence. I’ve stood with Sacagawea as she saw the great Pacific Ocean for the first time. I’ve explored the fields and woodlands of Vinci, Italy with a young Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve been there with the citizens of Florence as the newly sculpted David was revealed. I’ve found that the worlds of the past are no less exotic and enticing than any alien planet Roddenberry ever envisoned.

But that’s just the “go” part. Have I gone there “boldly?” Have I embraced those worlds wholeheartedly and placed myself within them? Have I done my research so thoroughly that I can smell the tang of the Pacific’s salt, feel the Vinci sunshine on my bare arms, or hear the collective gasp of the Florentines at the incomparable beauty of the David? That was Roddenberry’s gift. He created new worlds and made them real and then shared them with all of us. How bold is that?

For me, that is a work in progress.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Alfred Hitchcock

This week (August 13) we celebrate the 111th birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock.

My favorite Hitchcock quote:"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." Ah, tension, the essential element of drama. I remember the first time I saw THE BIRDS on TV as a kid. The scene of Tippi Hedren being attacked by the pecking birds was jaw-droppingly horrifying. But it was the scenes of the waiting, watching birds that made my heart speed up and the skin on my arms prickle with dread. That was just plain scary, and for a long time I couldn't see a bird on a telephone line without walking a little faster.

Now you may think that tension like that has no place in nonfiction. Wrong! Biography of course is just the story of someone's life, and no story should be without drama and therefore without tension. The story of any athlete, any politician, any inventor has tension at its core. Will my subject succeed? The better I am at making my reader feel that tension, at making that heart beat faster, the more interesting my biography will be. I owe that not only to my readers but to my subjects.

So yes, go ahead and include the bang. That's a part of your subject's story. But never forget to let your reader feel the anticipation of that bang. Your subject did.